Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Dartmoor, in 2000 BCE

Totanac figure wearing ear spools*
Maya ear spools made of jadeite**
By now, most people interested in early period historical costuming have probably read something about the Bronze Age archaeological find in Dartmoor, England. The first article I saw on the subject was this article in The Guardian. This website by the Dartmoor National Park Authority contains more information, both about the archaeological work and about each of the components of the find, and I commend both to my readers' attention.

The most striking detail about the find, as all of the news coverage has noted, are the wooden buttons or studs.  They are significant from a history of technology perspective simply because they are direct evidence that wood turning was practiced in Great Britain 4,000 years ago--no finds have demonstrated wood turning at such an early date before.  (The archaeologists believe that the studs were locally made because analysis of the wood indicates that they were made from the wood of a tree known as a spindle tree, a type of tree which still grows in Dartmoor.)  
Faience ear spool-Egyptian Middle Kingdom***

From a costumer's perspective, the studs are also interesting because of the possibility that they were worn as ear ornaments.  (There is an opposing theory that they might have been some kind of dress fastener, though I think it's harder to see how the objects in question could have been used in such a capacity.)  Similarly shaped ornaments have been found in archaeological contexts for other cultures, such as the Mayans, the Totanac (ancient Mexico), and the ancient Egyptians.  The famous mask of King Tutankhamen, and many images of the Buddha, show earlobes with holes wide enough to support this type of ornament.  So it doesn't seem beyond possibility, to me, that people in Dartmoor were wearing such studs, or ear spools as they are also called, 2,000 years before the birth of Christ.

However, there are other interesting artifacts related to costume, even more interesting than the debatable ear spool find, that the popular press has not bothered to discuss.  The Park Authority's website describes these with tantalizing brevity:
  • A cloth and leather belt?  Another artifact is a textile, woven from nettle fiber, with two rows of leather binding and a fringe of leather triangles, made from calfskin, stitched to the outer edge.   Chemical analysis failed to detect traces of dye in this object.  Currently it is thought that the object, measuring 345mm (about 13.5 inches) by 260mm (about 10.3 inches) may have been part of a belt.  
  • An armband?  A band 175mm (about 7 inches) long was discovered to have been woven from cow hair.  It is ornamented with round objects that have been determined to have been made from tin.  Tin is available in the Dartmoor area, but this artifact is the earliest example from a prehistoric context demonstrating its use.
  • Beads!  Over 200 of them were found, 7 of them made from Baltic amber.  About 90 of them were made from shale, and over 100 were fashioned from clay.  One, a large barrel-shaped bead, is also made from tin. This assortment is the largest number of beads found to date from a single Early Bronze Age burial in South West England.  
Archaeological finds excite me, no matter what period and culture is involved, because they are an opportunity to watch the boundaries of our knowledge of historic costume being expanded.  As science becomes able to discern greater amounts of information from minute scraps of textile and other objects, the possibility of learning what men and women were wearing in Bronze Age Dartmoor grows.  I hope to live to see much more of this process unfold.

*      Photograph from Wikimedia Commons.
**    Photograph from Wikimedia Commons. Artifact from the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
***  Artifact and photograph From the Virtual Egyptian Museum, Accession number AI.VS.00336.

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